May 01, 2016
Albany Times Union
Leigh Campbellgot quite a shock in the predawn hours of April 3: Twenty-seven weeks pregnant, his wife, Heather, went into early labor.
The couple, who live in Ray Brook in Essex County, rushed to the hospital in nearby Saranac Lake. But because that facility lacks a neonatal intensive care unit, their midwife called for a helicopter to bring Heather to the nearest open bed across Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt.
They avoided a premature birth and Heather remained in the hospital waiting to bring her baby to term when her husband was last contacted.
But another shock came two days later with the realization that the helicopter bill was $59,999 and Heather's insurance carrier would only cover about $370 for the 25-minute flight.
The service provided by the helicopter company LifeNet, was "out of network," and therefore not covered in her health insurance policy.
Large bills for out-of-network services aren't uncommon, and have long been a source of contention between insurance companies and their customers.
There's an added twist, said Campbell, who began researching the air ambulance industry after receiving the bill.
Because they describe themselves as air carriers, the companies claim they aren't subject to price restrictions. When it comes to aviation, federal regulation takes precedence over state rules. And the federal government deregulated airline rates in the late 1970s.
Each day, Campbell, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, has been driving back and forth from his job as a graphic designer in the Adirondacks to the hospital in Burlington.
Now, with the stress of the lengthy commute, the 31-year-old worries about his wife's health. And then there's the nearly $60,000 helicopter bill.
LifeNet is a subsidiary of the Englewood, Colo.-based Air Methods, whose representatives didn't respond to phone calls or emails late last week.
The company has been the subject of several critical stories in national media that have made note of its prices, and its tendency to pursue payments through bill collectors or legal action.
Its home page describes its personnel as "Defenders of Tomorrow" dedicated to "quality of care to patients and safety in aviation." The page also lists the company's stock price on the NASDAQ exchange.
LifeNet is a relative newcomer to the North Country, arriving in the Watertown area several years ago to fill a void that opened when the nearby Fort Drum Army base stopped providing free emergency helicopter airlifts.
There had been a program at Fort Drum known as Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic, but it was moved in 2007 to Fort Lewis in Washington state.
Air Methods has operated elsewhere in New York, sometimes drawing controversy.
One patient, New Paltz lawyer Diana L. Kidd, countersued the company after it brought legal action to collect a $36,646 bill for flying her from Catskill to the Westchester Medical Center following a motorcycle accident.
According to press reports, Kidd contended that a regular ambulance would have gotten her there in less than the 115 minutes she said she was billed for. Kidd couldn't be reached on Friday.
The Campbells' bill breaks out the charges into mileage — 51 miles for $23,062 — and the "Helicopter Rotor Base," for $36,936.
Transport to a major hospital from deep in the North Country can be daunting, given the distances.
"It's in the middle of the Adirondacks," remarked Eileen Mowrey, spokeswoman for Saranac Lake's Adirondack Medical Center, where the Campbells first went.
She wasn't commenting specifically on the Campbells, but explained that people in an emergency such as theirs need to use whatever option is available at the time.
The area has a volunteer group of paramedics who can fly with services such as State Police helicopters but those weren't available that morning.
Driving from Saranac Lake to Burlington, a 71-mile road trip, takes about two hours.
However, individuals familiar with rescue services noted that getting a helicopter in the air from its base near Watertown, then flying 112 miles to Saranac Lake, loading it and traveling on to Burlington can take close to two hours as well.
State and health insurance officials said the Campbells have several avenues they can pursue.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, provides an extra level of potential appeals regarding charges racked up from non-participating providers.
And state Health Plan Association spokeswoman Leslie Morannoted that since last year, consumers in New York can use an independent arbitrator to appeal payment issues for out of network charges.
While not commenting on the Campbells or Air Methods, she also wondered if such services sit purely in the aviation rather than health care category.
"They are putting themselves out there as medical transport," she noted.